This review is based on the first four episodes of Kabul Kitchen: Season 1. What is Walter Presents? Click here for everything you need to know about All 4’s new VOD service.
Say “Afghanistan” to most people and they won’t immediately think of the word “comedy”, but Kabul Kitchen isn’t like most TV shows. That immediately becomes apparent from its setting: a bar in the Afghan capital, which has become the go-to place for expats. Within minutes, we’ve seen people drinking, girls dancing – and a large, naked man jump into a pool.
If that’s not the kind of thing you’d expect to see on your TV screen, that’s exactly what makes Kabul such a fun watch. Most US or UK TV programmes wouldn’t go near such a thing, let alone think of it in the first place. America’s way of dealing with Afghanistan is to make shows such as Homeland, not go swimming with nude dudes. It helps that the show hails from France: the whole thing has a detached perspective that allows creators Jean-Patrick Benes, Allan Mauduit and Marc Victor to laugh at the situation.
And so we have Jacky (Gilbert Melki), the owner of the bar struggling to make ends meet in a city fraught with tension. He squeezes by one law, while trying not to anger the authorities. He stops the staff ogling the women at the pool, while promising to build a wall around it to stop offending the neighbours. His normal life is soon disrupted, though, by his booze suppliers, who want a cut of the profits to keep his customers drowning in illegal drink. His friend Axel (Benjamin Bellecour), meanwhile, is hired by the violent Colonel Amanullah (Simon Abkarian) to act as his campaign manager for an upcoming election. Oh, and his daughter Sophie (Stephanie Pasterkamp) arrives out of the blue, hoping to make a difference.
“She’s like her mother,” sighs Jacky. “She did aid work?” asks Damien (Alexis Michalik), who works with Jacky. “She was pretty,” he replies. “And a pain in the arse.”
These are tried and tested obstacles you might find in a normal sitcom, but the setting gives everything a certain frisson: Sophie’s intentions to educate the local women doesn’t just mean that she’s at odds with the locals, but that her life is at risk. Axel’s attempts to craft a warm, caring image of the Colonel, meanwhile, are swiftly dealt with by bullets fired in a poster’s head. Culture clash is an understatement. As one person puts it: “If you want Woody Allen, don’t come to Kabul.”
That constant juxtaposition is subtly mined not just for humour but for suspense too. The show may be French, but it’s shot on location in Casablanca, Morocco, something that gives it all a realistic edge: guns are as commonplace on-screen as alcohol, stacks of cash as on display as sex. The fact that it’s loosely inspired by real-life journalist Marc Victor, who actually did run a restaurant between 2003 and 2008 in Kabul for NGO workers, adds to the believability.
The cast are all excellent, from Pasterkamp’s charmingly indignant daughter to Bellecour’s sell-out PR man. Simon Abkarian’s Colonel is a constant source of laughs, thanks to his giant sunglasses, even bigger moustache and an ensemble of soldiers who manage to be simultaneously goofy, gap-toothed and threatening. The guest appearance of Caroline Bal as a tax officer, whom Jacky inevitably has a crush on, only reinforces that mix of risky compromise and believable bureaucracy, which rings just true enough to be funny. Throughout, Melki manages to make his money-loving schemer charismatic, a rogue whose heart is drawn out by the concern he has for his daughter in this dangerous society – a bond that neatly brings together the show’s blend of emotional engagement, peril and humour.
The end result zips along with the pace of a polished US sitcom, with giggles chucked in at every opportunity. “He’s very scary of arse,” observes barman Habib, after the Colonel is mentioned. “Yes,” adds Jacky. “But scary of arse isn’t an expression.” And that, overall, is the most important secret to Kabul Kitchen’s success. Corrupt local officials and the constant potential for being murdered are all well and good, but there are laughs aplenty to boot. Dictators, the Taliban and taxes? It turns out Afghanistan is ripe for comedy after all.
All 12 episodes of Kabul Kitchen (Seasons 1 and 2) are available for free on Walter Presents, the new, free VOD channel on All 4. For more information on the other foreign-language shows available, see our Walter Presents TV preview guide.